“You’ve got to live somewhere you aren’t afraid to die.” Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry From Kharkiv

“How did we build our houses?
When you’re standing under winter skies,
and the heavens turn and sail away,
you know you’ve got to live somewhere you aren’t afraid to die.”

Serhiy Zhadan is arguably the best-known contemporary Ukrainian-language poet and novelist. He is also the charismatic front-man and lyricist for the ska-punk band, Zhadan and the Dogs. He wrote these lines about the Crimean Tatars, who were deported en masse from Crimea under Stalin in 1944, and again displaced following the Russian annexation of the peninsula in 2014.

This week, the popular Ukrainian hip-hop group TNMK, together with the Tatar singer El’vira Sarikhalil, released a single, “Houses,” based on the poem, which they planned to release on February 26, the “Day of Crimean Resistance to the Occupation.” Linking the song to his social media feeds, Zhadan commented, “I wrote this text about Crimea, 2014, but today it isn’t just about Crimea.” Over the past week, as bombs have hit houses in Zhadan’s home city of Kharkiv, the writer has helped to coordinate volunteer opposition and relief efforts.

At 47, Zhadan has come to epitomize his intellectual and industrial city. He draws thousands of fans to his poetry readings and rock concerts alike. He has also influenced the politics and social discourse in Ukraine, as an activist and organizer since Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution.” During the 2013-14 “Revolution of Dignity,” Zhadan was active in the demonstrations in Kharkiv, and was hospitalized after being badly beaten by a violent counter-protester. He recovered, and following the outbreak of the Donbass war, he co-founded the Serhiy Zhadan Charitable Foundation. The organization has funded civilian relief and education efforts in the war torn Eastern regions of Donbass and his native Luhansk since war broke out against Russian-backed separatists.

Zhadan’s poetry and fiction is filled with gritty descriptions of an economically depressed, crime-filled post-Soviet industrial east. This territory inspires Zhadan: far from being a Soviet wasteland, it is a place of deep, complicated friendships, of creative potential. Since the outbreak of war in 2014, his poetry and fiction has turned to the more pressing questions of finding a purpose in a fragmented, war-torn reality. His 2015 poem, “Needle,” tells the story of a tattoo artist, who is shot at a checkpoint. The horror of war clarifies art’s potential to create meaning:

… carve out
angels’ wings on the submissive surface of the world.
Carve, carve, tattoo artist, for our calling
is to fill this world with meaning, to fill it
with colors.

(“Needle,” translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk, in Words for War)

In Zhadan’s 2017 novel The Orphanage (recently translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler), Pasha, a Ukrainian teacher, descends into the foggy hell of the front line to retrieve his nephew from a children’s home. “The neighborhood ends. Then the road stretches along an empty field—concrete structures started in the eighties yet never finished, abandoned forevermore and now finished off by mortar fire.” As he navigates his war-torn hometown, Pasha must sort out his own relationship to the war. He must take sides.

Located 25 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv has long been a city of industry, science and literary culture. It was the first capital of Soviet Ukraine, relinquishing this role to Kyiv in 1934. Contemporary Kharkiv is a vibrant, creative city. When I was last there in September of 2019, I met with the late poet Ilya Rissenberg, who wove Ukrainian, Yiddish, and Hebrew into his complex Russian-language poetry. Corner cafes are tucked throughout the city’s mid-century and modern architecture. The Kharkiv biennale was going, and the work of young artists was on display in several buildings downtown. I visited the “Tiny Garage,” a makers center for young children to learn woodworking, founded by the designer and musician, Yury Yakubov.

Over the past few months, as Russian tanks massed on the border, many outside Ukraine presumed that Kharkiv, with its large Russian-speaking population, would be an easy target for occupation, and perhaps annexation. And yet volunteer troops have, thus far, managed to keep the city in Ukrainian control. Far from being an island of Soviet nostalgia, Kharkiv is a center of new forms of activism and art in both Ukrainian and Russian.

Zhadan’s poetry has been collected in English translation by Virlana Tkazc, Wanda Phipps, Ostap Kin and John Hennessy, among others. We offer a small sample of some of his most recent work. The following poems, written in the fall and winter of 2021, are more meditative than Zhadan’s poems of the Donbass war. As in his literature of war, Zhadan’s poetic voice seeks truths about the human condition, but here these truths are embedded in the basic human impulse to speak, the changing seasons, the passage of time. Perhaps it’s possible, these lines suggest, to rebuild a world. (This is part two in a series on contemporary Ukrainian poetry; read part one, here.)

–Amelia Glaser, Cambridge, MA


Everything will change. Even this perpetual warmth
will change. The fog’s settled steadiness will shift.
The wet orthography of the grass will lose its inherently
clean line along with its stem’s expressive calligraphy.
The measure of things, which you accept so easily, will change,
the voice, which grew thicker in the dark, will get hoarse,
October, which you know by its broken light
and oversaturated space, will change too.
It will go like this: a bird’s lightness and rage
people, who forestall the evening chill by singing,
will start to remember winter like a forgotten language,
they’ll read it, re-read it, recognize it.
And everything will change for you, too, you
won’t escape this warning, this fear
of the blackbird in the morning circling the sharp,
warm trees, beating its wings against the blind gleam.
Lands that freeze to the core.
Sunny days for the brave and the luckless.
Your breath will change, in the end, when you recite
a memorized list of apologies, dogmas, and faults.
Dryness will change, and the wetness from the lowlands
will change, the field’s winter cold will change,

the stubborn October grasses and women’s inflections
will change. Like in fall, like in fall.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk


…let him speak now, or forever hold
his silence, let him explain obvious things—
how flames descend on lovers’ shoulders,
how despair, like a butcher, is scooping the world’s entrails
onto the morning cobblestones of a September city,
let him speak now, while it’s still possible
to at least save somebody, to at least help somebody,
Let him tell us how another descent into
the deep current will end, how immersion in the deep brown mixture of hash,
in the depths of darkness, when water, like silence,
lasts longer than any language, is more meaningful
than words uttered passionately, stronger than the declarations
between two people struck by the dance of love.
Let him warn this lighthearted pair, who are carried,
like a fish by the rhythm of groundwater,
by the change in wind, by the early October sun, let him warn them,
that everyone will be cast ashore, everyone torn from within
by the cold of shattered glass,
no one will manage to stop the flow,
no one will read the heavenly book,
written in the dead language of autumn.
Rather let him speak now, while they, enchanted,
count birds like the letters of a name scrawled by a child’s
hand, let him speak, let him try to break
this joy of grown-ups,
who stand facing one another,
as if to guard their loneliness.
The birds’ agile dance,
the logic of warm gestures,
bodies, like letters forming
joyful sentences.
Anyway, everything was clear from the start. And whom did it stop?
Whom did it scare?
The eternal sound of a river.
Eternal warnings and eternal courage.
They are so strong as they migrate South.
So touching when they return home.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk


Don’t say it aloud,
don’t let the coastal span of another utterance
roll off your tongue.
It’s a subtle, innate, human skill
of non-articulation, omission, awkwardness,
concealing something light behind your heart,
something so light, so sweet, so unshareable,
this wild generosity of not burdening anyone
with things that might make their face twitch.
And then speech starts, like the start of a cold,
it warms your lungs, and the fever sets in,
and since early August anxious people have been wandering around
glowing from within with this mysterious light.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk


A brief history of snow,
as told by eyewitnesses
mimicked by a chorus
collected from passers-by:
give me a chronology of the snowfall,
let me hold the thread that leads
to the borders of winter,
to a blizzard’s blue outskirts.
A brief description of what fills
the space between eastern dunes
and western lowlands,
a brief stop in winter’s long expedition.
All those who defended this city
will come out to its walls
and call after the bad weather
that fell on the shoulders of their dead:
You go first, snow, go,
once you’ve stepped forward, we’ll follow,
as you go out to the field
our singing will follow you.
After all, we’re the ones singing on a quiet night
when it’s silent downtown,
we plant the seeds of a sigh
in the black soil of breath.
Snow, fall on our childhood—
the safe haven of loyalty and noise,
here we were friendly
with the dark side of language,
with the deepening tenderness,
here we learned to collect voices
like coins,
you go first, snow, go first,
fill up the deep sadness of the well
that opened for you,
like a metaphor.
Past the last gasps of childhood behind the station wall
and the amateur blueprint of a Sunday school,
past the houses on a hill, where boys’
fragile voices break at the stem,
go ahead of us, snow, mark us present
in the book of comings and goings,
in the nighttime registry of love,
you go first, don’t be afraid of getting lost in the field
because we know you won’t get beyond the boundaries of sound,
beyond the boundaries of our names,
the world is like a dictionary, it preserves its own depths,
shares it with school teachers
and their students.
Your night is like prison bread, hidden in a pocket,
like the oblique silhouette of someone walking, the wax that’s shaped into the moon,
your path is a reinvented chronicle of cities,
the slope leading to the square,
the deep tracks left by hunters,
where fear meets courage.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.


Serhiy Zhadan is the author of five novels, over a dozen books of poetry, as well as many short stories and political essays. He has released five albums with “Zhadan and the Dogs.” Among his many awards are the BBC book award of the year, and of the decade. He co-founded the Serhiy Zhadan Charitable Foundation.

Amelia Glaser is Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at U.C. San Diego. She is the author of Jews and Ukrainians in Russia’s Literary Borderlands (2012) and Songs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine (2020). She is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Yuliya Ilchuk is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Stanford University. She is the author of Nikolai Gogol: Performing Hybrid Identity (2021).